What do we know about the effectiveness of SRE?

SRE stands for sex and relationships education, which – along with sex education – are commonly used terms in the UK. The term ‘sexuality education’ is more likely to be used in international literature. Some European countries have mandatory sex education which is frequently taught as part of a biology or science curriculum, but there is a lot of variety in what is provided within individual countries. For example, in Holland, biologicial aspects of sex education are mandatory but wider aspects (including relationships) are not[368]. The UK does not have a mandatory programme and there have been recent calls for this to be addressed, although a number of faith groups have opposed this.

It has been argued that sex education in schools in the UK is inconsistent, too little, too late and too biologically focused[369]. It is also highly heteronormative with little or no consideration of other sexualities[370]. LGB young people report feeling excluded by language and a focus on sexual activities that render same sex activities invisible[371].

Some researchers suggest that schools regulate sexuality through the promotion of dominant sexual cultures which undermine young people’s sexual agency and limit sex education’s effectiveness[372]. Current UK guidelines on SRE have been criticized for being paradoxical: alluding to a discourse of empowerment and young people’s rights to make informed choices, but implying what these choices should be – delaying sexual intercourse, avoiding pregnancy and STIs. It has been argued that this constitutes a morally informed public health agenda[373]. Sex and relationships education is limited to particular sexual practices and conception. This contrasts with the more extensive sexual repertoires disclosed by young people themselves[374].

Young people cite media as an important source of information about sex and relationships and increasingly use media, including pornography, to access alternative information about sex, especially information about pleasure and desire that is missing from SRE[375]. Indeed analysis of SRE programme outcomes demonstrate a focus on STIs and pregnancy risks and an absence of discussion of issues such as oral and anal sex, mutual and solo masturbation[376]. Yet although SRE provision is often criticized for being too biological, young people are anxious to know about the biological aspects of sex such as sexual organs and sexual function, for example what an erect penis looks like and how to ensure sufficient lubrication to alleviate discomfort on penetration[377].

34% of young people rate their SRE as bad or very bad[378] and there has been repeated concern about inconsistencies in SRE provision and quality, particularly where teachers have not received training and SRE is not given adequate space in the timetable[379]. Yet despite some negative experiences in sex education, young people desire the affirmation and support of adults and recommend SRE as the most appropriate vehicle for providing this[380]. Many young people lack adequate sexual health knowledge. 32% of young people find the information they have received sex and relationships unhelpful, or say they have received no information at all[381]. Levels of knowledge about STIs are generally poor. In research carried out with over 1900 young people 31% of year 10 pupils did not correctly identify Chlamydia as an STI and 56% did not know that syphilis is an STI[382].

In the US many schools have adopted ‘abstinence-only’ programmes. These teach abstinence as the only option for unmarried people of any age, with no discussion about contraception unless it is in the context of failure rates. It is underpinned by the belief that providing information about contraception may encourage young people to have sex[383]. Some programmes require young people to take pledges to remain virgins until they are married. Despite nearly two decades of abstinence education, there have been few rigorous evaluations. There is no evidence that ‘abstinence-only’ education reduces teenage pregnancy or improves sexual health[384]. There is also no evidence to support the claims that the teaching of contraception leads to increased sexual activity[385]. Research suggests that education and strategies that promote abstinence but withhold information about contraception and the diversity of possible sexual practices can actually place young people at higher risk of pregnancy and STIs[386].

Researchers have identified that the characteristics of effective SRE programmes include[387]:

  • The contribution of both school and home to SRE
  • The use of trained educators
  • The address of a comprehensive range of topics including the ‘psychosocial’ factors that affect behaviour, such as values, norms and self-efficacy
  • Using participatory learning methods and small group work.

Evidence shows that SRE works best if it starts before a young person has their first experience of sex and if it responds to the needs of young people as they mature. SRE should start in primary school and be taught in an age-appropriate manner, starting with topics such as personal safety and friendships. Both primary and secondary school pupils, particularly girls, have said they need SRE to start earlier[388]. Some researchers argue that education should be based on a framework of ethical sexual decision-making, because promoting safer, consensual sexual decision making is an important aspect of advancing mutual sexual pleasure and challenges the universalized assumptions about male and female sexuality which predominate in much current SRE[389].


368. Sex Education Forum Evidence briefing, http://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/evidence.aspx
369. Blake, S. (2008). There’s a hole in the bucket: the politics, policy and practice of sex and relationships education. Pastoral Care in Education, 26(1), 33-41.
370. Forrest, S., Strange, V., Oakley, A. & The RIPPLE Study Team. (2004). What do young people want from sex education? The results of a needs assessment from a peer‐led sex education programme. Culture, Health & Sexuality, 6(4), 337-354; Martinez, A. & Emmerson, L. (2008). Key Findings: Teachers’ Survey on Sex and Relationships Education, Sex Education Forum Briefing, http://www.ncb.org.uk/media/333329/teachers_survey_on_sex___relationships_education.pdf
371. Buston, K. & Wight, D. (2004). Pupils’ participation in sex education lessons: understanding variation across classes. Sex Education, 4(3), 285-301; Formby, E. (2011). Sex and relationships education, sexual health, and lesbian, gay and bisexual sexual cultures: Views from young people. Sex Education, 11(3), 255-266.
372. Allen, L. (2004). Beyond the birds and the bees: constituting a discourse of erotics in sexuality education. Gender and Education, 16(2), 151-167; Fine, M. (1988). Sexuality, schooling, and adolescent females: The missing discourse of desire. Harvard Educational Review, 58(1), 29-54.
373. Spencer, G., Maxwell, C. & Aggleton, P. (2008). What does ‘empowerment’ mean in school‐based sex and relationships education? Sex Education, 8(3), 345-356.
374. Formby, E., Hirst, J., Owen, J., Hayter, M. & Stapleton, H. (2010). ‘Selling it as a holistic health provision and not just about condoms…’: Sexual health services in school settings: current models and their relationship with sex and relationships education policy and provision. Sex Education, 10(4), 423-435.
375. Aapola, S., Gonick, M. & Harris, A. (2005). Young Femininity: Girlhood, Power and Social Change. Hampshire UK: Palgrave MacMillan.
376. Ingham, R. (2005). ‘We didn’t cover that at school’: education against pleasure or education for pleasure? Sex Education, 5(4), 375-388; Hirst, J. (2008). Developing sexual competence? Exploring strategies for the provision of effective sexualities and relationships education. Sex Education, 8(4), 401-415.
377. Bale, C. (2012). Exploring the relationship between sexualized media, young people and sexual health: A Qualitative Study, PhD Thesis, Sheffield: University of Sheffield.
378. Sex Education Forum Evidence briefing, http://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/evidence.aspx
379. See OFSTED reports 2007 and 2010, http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/sex-andrelationships-education-schools
380. Formby, E., Hirst, J., Owen, J., Hayter, M. & Stapleton, H. (2010). ‘Selling it as a holistic health provision and not just about condoms…’: Sexual health services in school settings: current models and their relationship with sex and relationships education policy and provision. Sex Education, 10(4), 423-435.
381. National Foundation for Education Research (2010). Sex education – all you ever wanted to know about how it’s taught in other countries, http://www.nfer.ac.uk/about-nfer/press/releases/sex-education-all-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-howits-taught-in-other-countries.cfm
382. Westwood, J. & Mullan, B. (2006). Knowledge of secondary school pupils regarding sexual health education. Sex Education, 6(2), 151-162.
383. Sex Education Forum (2004). ‘Abstinence only‘ Education, http://www.ncb.org.uk/
384. See Kirby, D. (2002). Effective approaches to reducing adolescent unprotected sex, pregnancy, and childbearing. Journal of Sex Research, 39(1), 51-57; Kirby, D. B. (2008). The impact of abstinence and comprehensive sex and STD/HIV education programs on adolescent sexual behavior. Sexuality Research & Social Policy, 5(3), 18-27; Swann, C., Bowe, K., Kosmin, M. & McCormick, G. (2003). Teenage pregnancy and parenthood: a review of reviews. Evidence briefing. London: Health Development Agency.
385. Swann, C., Bowe, K., Kosmin, M. & McCormick, G. (2003). Teenage pregnancy and parenthood: a review of reviews: Evidence briefing. London: Health Development Agency
386. Bearman, P. S. & Brückner, H. (2001). Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology, 106(4), 859-912; Jemmott III, J. B., Jemmott, L. S. & Fong, G. T. (1998). Abstinence and safer sex HIV riskreduction interventions for African American adolescents. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 279(19), 1529-1536; Dailard, C. (2002). Abstinence promotion and teen family planning: the misguided drive for equal funding. The Guttmacher Report on Public Policy, 5(1), 1-3.
387. Kirby, D. B., Laris, B. A. & Rolleri, L. A. (2007). Sex and HIV education programs: their impact on sexual behaviors of young people throughout the world. Journal of Adolescent Health, 40(3), 206-217.
388. See OFSTED report 2010, http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/sex-andrelationships-education-schools
389. See for example Carmody, M. (2005). Ethical Erotics: Reconceptualizing Anti-Rape Education. Sexualities, 8(4), 465-480; Carmody, M. (2009). Sex & Ethics: young people and ethical sex. South Yarra: Palgrave Macmillan.